The West Memphis Three: Damien Echols, Capital Punishment, and Christian Hypocrisy

Last Friday, the "West Memphis Three" were released after nearly twenty years in prison. Recently granted a new trial for the 1993 murder of three young boys, prosecutors felt there was not enough evidence to secure a conviction. At the original trial, it was claimed that the victims were murdered as part of a satanic ritual, a claim so outrageous that even some of the victims' own families now believe the men are innocent.

Had the men not won the appeal that eventually led to their release, one of them, Damien Echols, would probably have been executed. He is another recent example of a likely innocent man wrongly sentenced to death (see Hopefully, his release will help start a national conversation that will put an end to capital punishment in the United States.

It is worth noting that some of the strongest supporters of the death penalty in this country are conservative Christian leaders like Dr. James Dobson and Sarah Palin (who is more of a political and media celebrity but also wears her conservative evangelicalism on her sleeve). They claim that people who commit heinous crimes forfeit their right to live. It is sadly ironic that Christians on the right, like Palin and Dobson, also believe the nation should be guided by Christian principles. In that case, they need to reconsider their belief that some people deserve to die. Capital punishment is incompatible with the Christian faith for a number of biblical and theological reasons.

Christians should oppose capital punishment because the Bible commands us to love others, even the guilty. It is possible for Christians in favor of the death penalty to find ample support for their views in the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). Thus Genesis reads, "Whoever sheds man's blood, By man his blood shall be shed" (Gen. 9:6). In the Old Testament murder was a capital crime. Of course, so was adultery, cursing your parents, and working on the Sabbath (Lev. 20:10, Lev. 20:9, and Ex. 35:2). Christian leaders like Pat Robertson, who cite biblical precedent for capital punishment, typically insist they want to preserve the death penalty only for the most heinous crimes (Robertson has called for a moratorium on the practice, but not the principle, of the death penalty). Assuming we are not ready to start stoning people who check their Blackberries on a Sunday afternoon (most Christians' Sabbath), then it seems quoting the Old Testament to support capital punishment is an argument that can only go so far. Looked at in light of the teachings of Jesus, a biblical case for capital punishment is much harder to sustain.

Christians who think some people deserve to die need to try to picture Jesus pulling the lever for an electric chair or St. Paul administering a lethal injection. Such images are jarring because we believe the Bible is ultimately about love. The death penalty is based upon an ethic of retribution that says people who kill must be killed. But Jesus rejected an ethic of retribution for an ethic of love. We are not to take "an eye for an eye" (Matt 5:38) because Jesus said we should "love [our] enemies" (Matt 5:44). Loving our enemies is easier said than done, but not killing them is a good place to start.

People who agree with Sarah Palin and James Dobson, that the laws of the state should reflect the laws of the Bible, might look for precedent to Prince Vladimir of Russia. When he brought Christianity to his land in 988, he also abolished the death penalty, believing that a Christian king could not order the death of someone he was supposed to love.

Christians should oppose capital punishment because we claim to be "pro-life." Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians generally oppose abortion, suicide, euthanasia, and capital punishment (as well as support economic and social justice) because we try to have what the Catholic cardinal Joseph Bernadin called a "consistent ethic of life." For the past thirty years conservative Protestants have largely confined what it means to be "pro-life" to the womb. The term has become synonymous with being "anti-abortion." But the Christian should value life in all its stages because we believe that people are made in God's image (Gen. 1:27).

That is why murder is a sin. I quoted Gen. 9:6 above, which does command execution for murder, but the verse goes on to say, "For in the image of God He made man." Though the rationale of the verse seems a bit inconsistent, it suggests that to murder another human being is, in a way, to assault God. Jesus reiterated this idea when he said that whatever we do to other people, we do to him (Matt. 25:40). Theologians debate about how we should understand being made in God's image, but there is basic agreement that it means human life has inherent value. In the face of another person, we see God's face.

The church's historic opposition to suicide makes for an interesting example of the inconsistent logic of Christians who support the death penalty. Though today we recognize that many who commit suicide are actually victims of mental illness, in principle the church has viewed it as a form of murder. Being made in God's image means we do not even have the "right" to end our own lives. Simply put, we belong to God. Thus to claim that some people deserve to die flies in the face of what it means to be made in God's image. If we have no right to kill ourselves, how can we claim a right to kill others?

Christians should oppose capital punishment because we know people are fallible. What happened to Damien Echols and others like him should remind us of the fact that we are poor judges. One consequence of the Fall of Adam and Eve is a general weakness in the human condition, including the ability to make good judgments. That is, after all, one reason we sin. No other creature in God's creation can deceive and justify itself like the human being. Thus Jesus taught us not to judge others. If we cannot judge ourselves -- always seeing the specks in others' eyes but not the beams in our own -- we are clearly not qualified to decide capital cases (Matt 7:1-5).

Of course, in a civil society we have to judge, but we try to overcome our fallibility through legal checks and balances (like requiring unanimous verdicts). These measures imply our justice system can never be perfect, a fact we become keenly aware of after high profile legal cases. Many felt that the 1995 acquittal of O.J. Simpson was a failure of "the system." The same sentiment was recently expressed with regard to Casey Anthony. Damien Echols is the other side of the coin. He is just one of a slew of people new research is showing were convicted mostly on the basis of ignorance, prejudice, and coerced confessions (in Echols' case, a mentally disabled "accomplice"). Questions of jurisprudence aside, what does it say about our society that we become more enraged when we think someone has been wrongly acquitted than when he has been wrongly convicted? The death of Caylee Anthony was a travesty, but the death of Echols would have been equally heinous.

To a certain extent, I agree with people who say our nation should be guided by Christian principles -- principles like love, the value of human life, and the recognition of human weakness. What hypocrites we are if we hold a Bible in one hand and a noose in the other! Executing criminals is not about justice. It is about vengeance! There is no evidence that the death penalty deters crime, it does nothing to bring back victims, and we even create more victims when we execute the innocent (or the guilty, for that matter).

We should also consider that many victims of capital punishment -- innocent or otherwise -- were doubtless themselves Christian. Like Lazarus from the parable, they may be "in the bosom of Abraham," waiting for us (see Luke 16:19ff). God help us, who played a part in their punishment, whether through our direct action or our apathy. When we come into God's kingdom, we may have to face our victims -- the people we have killed in the name of justice -- and beg their forgiveness, for we are their murderers.